Clergy, doctors, industry debate new mercury rules at EPA hearing

Posted: May 24, 2011

First, Rabbi Daniel Swartz leaned toward the microphone at Tuesday's hearing on proposed federal rules to limit mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants.

By allowing emissions to continue, "we have, in effect subsidized the poisoning of fetuses and children," the Scranton rabbi said.

Later came the Rev. Mitchell Hescox, president of the Evangelical Environmental Network, a national ministry. "We are hindering children from an abundant life. . . because we failed to clean up this terrible poison," he said.

By the time Joy Bergey of the Chestnut Hill United Methodist Church spoke, the EPA's hearing officer, Rob Brenner, was curious.

Of all the rules he's worked on, he said, the religious and social justice communities have shown the most interested in the mercury rule. Why?

"Because of the fact that it's such clear science," Bergey said. "This hurts babies. This hurts children. It is so clearly a question of moral responsibility."

Tuesday's hearing in Philadelphia was one of three nationwide this week. Participants spoke in five-minute segments, beginning at 9 a.m., with the hearing expected to last until 8 p.m. or later.

At least eight speakers represented religious groups. The environmental and medical community dominated the schedule.

"The American public has the right to clean air and clean water," said Delaware County's Robin Mann, Sierra Club national president.

"Currently, our air remains a waste dump," said Walter Tsou, of Philadelphia Physicians for Social Responsibility. "We're asking that all power plants comply with some common sense precautions. . . if you're going to burn coal or fossil fuels, use the best technology to prevent polluting the air."

"We must recognize that the effects of harmful air emissions ripple all the way to the most vulnerable members of our society," said Poune (/ accent over the e) Saberi, a family medicine physician at the University of Pennsylvania.

Coal power is dominant in Pennsylvania, which has over three dozen plants, and the state ranks high nationally for mercury emissions.

The agency proposed the rule in March. It would limit emissions of mercury. When it falls back to the ground and gets into waterways, it becomes the more toxic methylmercury, which accumulates in fish. People are exposed when they eat fish. The neurotoxin can harm the brains of fetuses and infants.

The rule also would limit emissions of other hazardous pollutants - arsenic, chromium, nickel, acid gases - that can cause serious health effects, including cancer.

The EPA has estimated that, by 2016, the rule would result in up to 17,000 premature deaths avoided. It also would cause tens of thousands of fewer heart attacks, cases of chronic bronchitis, asthma cases and more.

EPA administrator Lisa P. Jackson has said the rule would create jobs.

James W. Banford Jr., of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Local 13, predicted, instead, that there would be "tens of thousands of job losses at utility plants, coal mines and in the rail sector."

Scott H. Segal, director of the Electric Reliability Coordinating Council, an industry group, said the rule would be "the most expensive in EPA history" - costing about $11 billion a year - and that benefits were overstated. He asked that the agency extend the public comment period.

"There is not enough money in the world that you can pay an individual for loss of life and for a short life expectancy due to fact that they have inhaled toxic chemicals," countered the Rev. Dr. Horace Strand of the Chester Environmental Partnership, formed to deal with the "clustering" of polluting facilities in the economically disadvantaged community.

"Our children are suffering," he said. "I ask EPA to resist pressure of industry whose only concern is the bottom dollar."

Some in the industry support the rule.

Bruce Alexander, environmental regulatory strategy director with Exelon Corp., which has invested in clean generation, called the proposed rule is "balanced, reasonable and long overdue."

"Some claim that the power industry is monolithic and that we all that that EPA has run amok," he said. "That is simply not true."

Likewise, Michael Bradley, executive director of the Clean Energy Group, a coalition of electric power companies, said the proposed standards "are not as burdensome as some in the electric sector had anticipated." He said they would provide the "certainty" the industry needs to move forward with capital investment decisions.

Chris Salmi, assistant director of air quality for the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, said New Jersey has stricter standards, and he urged the federal agency to tighten regulations even more.

Pennsylvania had proposed mercury regulations, but they failed in a court challenge.

John Hanger, former secretary of the Pennsylvania DEP, said "the benefits of this rule so far exceed the costs that suggesting otherwise is lunacy."

The EPA's Brenner said that coal- and oil-fired power plants power plants are "the largest domestic source of mercury emissions into the air."

Power plants would have three years to meet the new standards, with the possibility of a one-year extension.

In 1990, Congress amended the Clean Air Act, requiring the EPA to address toxic substances. In 2000, the EPA determined that it could regulate coal-fired power plants. The Bush administration proposed a rule, but it was successfully challenged in court.

"Our nation has waited a long time for the promise of 1990 to be kept," said Kevin Stewart of the American Lung Association. "It is a promise of air that is clean and healthful to breathe."

For U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service aquatic biologist Ed Perry spoke of how, when he takes his grandson fishing for the first time this year, they'll have to throw the fish back instead of eating it because it will likely be contaminated with mercury.

John McLaughlin said he works with ex-offenders. "A lot live in halfway houses and are held accountable for every move they make," he said. "I'm wondering, who's holding these coal companies accountable?"

During a lunch break, environmental advocates held a rally and "stroller brigade" - mothers pushing their children in strollers to highlight mercury's threat to children - outside the Westin Hotel, where the hearing was held.

In testimony later that day, Gretchen Alfonso, the Philadelphia mother of two children under age 2, said, "It makes me angry that, despite my best efforts at living a healthy lifestyle, my body, and my family's, are being invaded by toxins from all angles."

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace

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